My eyes slowly open, and I raise my head to look around me.
I don’t know when she came back from the small town, but Sif is there, sitting in front of me, looking at me with a small smile on her lips. Behind her, the sun is already halfway down the horizon, tinting the sky in shades of pink and orange and red. I’m still seated in the grass, my back against the tree, its coarse bark rubbing against my skin.
Did I… Did I fall asleep?
How long has it been since such a thing happened?
It’s not all that rare a thing for me to sleep, these days, but when I do, it’s because I make myself, to exercise my soul or simply to store energy. But I never fall asleep spontaneously, without even meaning to do it.
In the Planar Tower, allowing such a thing to happen would be little more than a death sentence…
I suppose I was a lot more tired than I thought.
When she sees I’m awake, Sif’s smile deepens. “You looked so innocent, when you were asleep. If you didn’t have all those scars all over your body, you would almost have looked like a normal child.”
I’m really not a child, though.
“I got the information we needed. I know where we are, now.”
When I’m about to answer, I suddenly notice something, on the very edge of my senses. I can detect faint traces of poison lingering through the air. When I turn my head to investigate the source of this poison, I see three bodies, lying lifelessly on the road, where Sif and I stopped to talk a while ago. I can hear neither heartbeats nor breathing coming from any of them.
How did I not notice a fight happening so close to me?
And I didn’t notice Sif approaching me, either…
This is a little scary.
I must quickly recover my caution, or I’ll definitely regret it, the day someone takes advantage of this to attack me.
I look back to Sif and hint toward the corpses. […What happened?]
She throws a bored glance in their direction. “Ah, yes. Nothing you need to be concerned about. These three young men met me in town this afternoon. They liked me so much that they followed me when I was returning here and tried to, uh, inform me of the depth of their affection. So I killed them.”
Oh. That sounds like a very foolish reason to die.
I dismiss the matter from my mind and finally get back to the point. […Where are we?]
“Well, this small town over there is called Getsbane. It’s on the western edge of the country of Lamos.” She frowns suddenly, as if she’s just thought of something. “Do you know anything about Caldera’s geography?” When I shake my head, she continues. “Lamos is the closest country to majin territory. Um, it would be simpler if I had a map to illustrate, but Getsbane’s general store didn’t sell anything like that, I’m afraid. I guess I can just sketch it on the ground.”
Maps, I have.
With a wave of my hand, a thick tome appears and falls on the ground in front of me with a dull thud, flattening the grass underneath it. I open it and quickly browse through the pages for information on Lamos.
I find it soon enough.
Two vast land masses occupy the west and east sides of the map. The land to the west is only marked ‘Human Kingdoms’ without further precision. Similarly, the one to the east is labelled ‘Majin Kingdoms’. The two are separated by the Betwixt Sea. Neither of these two continents are shown in full, however, as the map is centered on a small line of land stretching between them called the Thread – though ‘line’ is perhaps not the right word to describe it; the scale below the map indicates that the Thread still spans nearly 2,000 kilometers from north to south. Most of the surface of the Thread is colored in plain grey, with only a skull within a circle drawn on it in red ink. That grey, skull-marked area almost completely cuts off the human and majin territories from each other, with only a few thin strands of white cutting through it to link the two. To the west of the grey area lie several human countries, like layers piled up next to each other to act as buffers for the rest of the human territories. And as Sif said, the human country closest to majin territory, with only the grey area to separate them, is Lamos. Next in line, just a little further west, are Destem and Tonarr.
Sif leans over the map. “Getsbane is too small a town to appear on this map, but it should be around… here.” She points at a spot on the map on the western edge of Lamos. “About 150 kilometers north of Lamos’s capital, Aldenfell.”
I point at the grey, skull-marked area.
[…What is this?]
“Ah. That’s the Frontline. If you’re looking for your family, well, you won’t find them there. This is the place where human and majin armies most often clash. The radiation from centuries of soldiers throwing their most powerful spells around has turned this whole area into a blasted, polluted wasteland where nothing can live. The earth itself is poisoned. You need to be at least a 3rd-rank warrior to survive any length of time in this place. Otherwise, you’ll quickly get deathly sick. Your skin will rot, and your hair will fall off. It’s not a pretty picture. Of course, I’m sure you wouldn’t feel any kind of adverse effect, even if you decided to build a house and live out the rest of your immortal life over there.”
“In any case, I suggest you don’t head too far east without proper care. Even though it might seem peaceful and pastoral from where we’re standing, walk just 200 or 300 kilometers toward the Frontline, and you’ll see that Lamos is a heavily militarized nation. The sharpest, most elite armies gather in this country. Their weapons are usually pointed the other way, toward the majin, but they might still turn them around and aim them at you, if they take note of your presence.”
[…What about you?]
Sif smiles. “Oh, I can be very discreet, when I need to. I’ll be able to slip through and back into majin territory easily enough. No one will even notice I was ever there. I already know precisely what I need to do; don’t worry about me. So, is there anything on this map that you can recall? Do you have any idea where to start looking?”
I ponder silently for a few minutes, my eyes fixed on the map, trying to dredge up old memories, until I notice something else. There is a thin black line going through the Thread, from city to city, stretching even beyond the Thread itself into both human and majin territories. The black line only stops when the map itself does, so I assume it goes even further than what is depicted here.
[…What is that?]
“The railroad. It goes through pretty much every major human city. In the past, it also went deep into majin territory, but it’s long since been cut short. Your map hasn’t been updated to reflect that, though. It must be pretty old.”
[…What’s a railroad?]
“It’s, um, well, it’s like a road, but only trains can follow it. Do you know what a train is? It’s like a very fast, metal carriage that people ride to travel quickly and safely between distant cities.”
I’ve seen that before, haven’t I?
Wasn’t there something like that near my house, when I was young?
I seem to faintly remember the image, from my room’s window, of that black thing dashing across the plains below the mountain. Yes… I think it was a train. I’m not certain, but it’s somewhere to start, at least.
Then, I’d just need to follow the railroad.
I distinctly remember the mountain covered in pink trees. I’m sure I would be able to recognize it, if I could only see it.
Right, that’s what I’ll do.
Follow the railroad.
Find the mountain.
Nerys probably won’t be there, but there might be some clues to be found here as to her whereabouts.
…And I want to see it again.
I want to see how time has changed the place where I grew up.
After a few moments of recollection, I look down at the map again. The closest point to the railroad is…
“Have you decided where you’re going?” Sif asks, looking up at me.
I nod and show her on the map.
Sif’s gaze follows my finger, and she frowns. “Aldenfell? Are you sure? There will be quite a lot of people, there. All of them human, most of them soldiers. None of whom will welcome you.” She smirks. “It’ll be quite noisy, too.”
“Well, if that’s what you’ve decided, I certainly won’t tell you otherwise. Actually, if you’re set on going there, I might just be able to help you, now that I think about it.”
“Humans and majin may be at war, but that doesn’t mean that no exchange is possible between the two, especially considering the fact that the fighting has calmed down a lot in recent years, what with those devils popping up and wrecking things everywh– I mean, uh…” Sif looks at me anxiously for a few moments, but when I show no reaction to her words, she continues. “Ahem… In any case, while non-humans like us certainly aren’t appreciated in this part of the world, it’s not to the point where we’d be killed on sight, either. Probably. I mean, there are a few places where… No, what I’m getting at, or trying to, is that I have some contacts in Aldenfell who might be able to issue an identification card to you.
[…What is that?]
“It’s a piece of paper that vouches for your identity. With it in your hands, you should be able to enter any city without trouble – well, without too much trouble. That should be helpful in your search, I think. Otherwise, you’ll have to hide yourself and sneak around, like we did in the Planar Prison.”
Hmm, I suppose it would be convenient.
[…Can’t you write one for me now?]
Sif shakes her head. “No, no. For it to be valid, the identification card needs to bear the seal of a sanctioned organization. Not just anybody can do it. That’s why, once you’re in Aldenfell, find the headquarters of the mercenary group called ‘High-Sea Verse’. Ask for a man named Jasper and tell him that Milenna – that’s what I was called at the time – asked him to help you. That should be enough to convince him, I think.”
A few seconds of silence go by before Sif speaks up once more. “Well, I guess this is it, then… I’m not sure if we’ll ever meet again, but thank you for saving me, when we first met. And for getting me out of the Planar Prison, too. I’m really quite grateful.”
“Right, not one for farewells, are you? I could have guessed that. Oh, could you return my bag to me? I still have enough supplies left inside to last me until the next town, I think. That’ll be handy.” Sif holds out her arms, and with a wave of my hand, her bag appears in her grasp. “Thank you.” She stands up and slings the bag over her shoulders with a tired sigh. “I really didn’t miss that weight on my back… It’s strange, isn’t it? I gave it to you to keep at most, what, 12 hours ago, before going to meet Jodene and Shen Lei, but it feels like much longer than that, somehow. I definitely need to find a space ring like yours, too.”
…I don’t think this bag is heavy enough to warrant such complaints, though.
“Oh, one more thing,” Sif says suddenly, taking something out of her pocket. “I almost forgot, but… Here.”
[…What is this?]
Sif turns a bright smile toward me. “I bought this in Islandis Fortress, when you were going around the marketplace. I intended to give it to you, but then we got involved with Shen Lei, and it slipped my mind. I suppose it will serve as my parting gift, then.”
I tilt my head and look at the thing, but I still have no idea what it’s supposed to be. It appears to merely be a few bits of black string and cloth.
“It’s an eyepatch. You can’t see through your right eye, can you?” She suddenly starts looking strangely enthusiastic, her smile widening. “Trust me, it’ll definitely look good on you.”
My right eye?
Oh, that might be amusing.
[…That’s not an eye.]
To accompany my words, Sanae suddenly extends her legs, one after another, and slowly climbs out of my eye socket, then skitters down my cheek and my neck to stand on top of my shoulder, her size steadily increasing all the while.
Sif gives a shout and flinches backward, almost tripping over her own feet in her rush to get away from me. With the weight of her bag pulling her down, she only barely manages to catch her balance in time, but she barely even seems to notice her own predicament, her eyes staring unblinkingly at Sanae.
“You… have a spider… living in your… eye socket…”
Nice reaction, by the way. That was quite satisfying.
I was also quite surprised when I first found Sanae sleeping there, once I regained consciousness after the battle against the giant frog. It’s not like it harms me in any way, though, so I don’t mind. Still, I expected even less that she would stay there even after she woke up.
When Sanae reaches my shoulder, she turns to Sif and waves one of her front legs in greeting.
Sif doesn’t wave back, however. She only blinks a few times and starts stuttering. “You’re… That is… That… I mean… I have seen some weird things over the years, but… This is a first, I have to say. I have certainly met other people who kept spiders as pets before, but none of them allowed the spider to nest inside their own body. Usually, people buy an enclosure, you see. A vivarium of some sort.”
“Huh. Doesn’t it look a lot like the giant spider from the battle today? Are they one and the same, perchance?”
Sif suddenly starts frowning thoughtfully. “It can grow bigger… What happens if it suddenly expands while still hiding inside of your skull? Isn’t that dangerous? Wouldn’t your head explode?”
“Oh. Good.” She glances at the eyepatch still held in her hand, regret plain on her face. “Still, that’s a shame. I’m absolutely certain it would have looked good on you.”
[…I’ll wear it.]
Sif’s eyes flick back to me, a brilliant smile once again lighting up her face, her expression brightening with joy. “You will?”
So far, all the people I have seen, both on the Planar Prison and on Caldera, have eyes identical to each other – except for rhuths, of course, for whom the question doesn’t even occur since they only have one. But as for me, having eyes that look so different from each other might attract attention. And some people might be able to tell that the right is not an eye at all. Even though it might produce as amusing a reaction as I got from Sif, I don’t intend to casually show off Sanae to just anybody. Hiding her presence until the right moment might give me the element of surprise, in case I ever end up needing it.
Sif’s gaze follows her as Sanae makes her way back up my face and into my eye socket again. “Won’t the spider be blinded, though, if you wear an eyepatch? Doesn’t it want to see what’s around you?”
[…She can see what I see.]
Sif only quirks an eyebrow at that, before approaching me. I get to my feet and stand immobile in front of her, and Sif carefully ties the eyepatch around my head, adjusting its position until she’s satisfied. Once she’s done, she takes a step back to admire her handiwork.
She nods to herself, pursing her lips in appreciation. “You should wear your new cloak along with it, too.”
Following her advice, I take the red cloak out of my space ring and drape it over my shoulders. Sif already fixed it to my size a while ago, before arriving near Getsbane, when we stopped on the road so she could rest and eat and drink. This cloak is in much better condition than the last, at least, since I took care to pick one who hadn’t suffered too much damage from the battle.
“Good, good! Very dashing! It suits you perfectly!” Sif lets out a satisfied sigh as her gaze roves over me, then her voice turns firm and resolute. “Well then, time for me to go. Farewell, and good luck. May we meet again.”
Sif turns away and takes a step to leave… only to immediately spin around right back toward me, her face solemn.
“Actually, there is one last thing,” she says in a low voice, walking in my direction. “I need to see to this matter without fail before I leave. It is paramount. Vital, I would even go so far as to say. I’m not sure the mood is exactly right for it, but, well, that can’t be helped. What I know is that I’ll definitely regret it if I don’t do it now.”
As I wonder what could possibly be so important, Sif stops half a step in front of me and leans down. Her hands cup my cheeks, and she presses her lips against mine, her eyes slowly closing, her tongue forcefully opening my mouth and sneaking inside it.